A privilege to be NHC Chair

Geraldine Howley, former chair of the Northern Housing Consortium

Geraldine Howley was chair of the Northern Housing Consortium (NHC) for six years between 2008 and 2014 and was part of the Commission for Housing in the North.

Geraldine has over 30 years’ experience of working in housing and was Chief Executive of Incommunities for 18 years. She is currently a Director of the GEM programme which offers a wide range of jobs and intensive learning experiences in the housing sector across the country. 

 

Can you share some highlights from your time as chair of Northern Housing Consortium?

It was an absolute privilege to be chair of the Northern housing Consortium and to work with likeminded people who have the will, enthusiasm and energy to make a difference in the north.

One of the highlights during my time with the organisation was our influencing role and the way we were able to develop relationships with politicians locally, regionally and nationally.

We visited Downing Street to make a case for rebalancing funding for housing in the north, collaborating with organisations like the CBI to meet MPs together and the events we held, like our conferences and round tables, gave us a great platform to talk directly to senior politicians.

I think that success was partly due to the fact that NHC is seen as a welcoming and fair organisation that wants to listen, learn and engage.

The introduction of procurement frameworks which, over the years, have also been extremely beneficial providing members with great value and helping them drive efficiency across the north by providing access to a wide range of quality services and suppliers. All of this has meant housing organisations can be more efficient and make savings which ultimately benefit tenants.

At the end of 2016, after 18 months of consultation and research, the NHC published the report of the Commission for Housing in the North. Its aim was to understand issues for housing in the north and identify practical solutions to enable growth and regeneration in the north.

Do you think the findings are still relevant today?

I think there’s been a step change in that there’s now a recognition that northern housing markets are different from the south and one size doesn’t fit all. The importance of regeneration is on the agenda and people are now talking about place making.  We have a lot to offer in the north such as affordable land and great rural areas. Whilst house values differ from other geographical areas, what remains is the potential the north has as a fantastic contribution to growth.

The levelling up white paper and devolution have certainly been catalysts for change but that said there’s still a way to go.

We made the case for the fact that housing is instrumental for economic growth and the whole of the economy, and that the north has a huge amount to offer. Now we need a holistic, national housing strategy with regional strategies that link into it – and devolution will make a difference here, with decision-making being brought to a regional level.

If there’s a change of government coming, let’s hope housing will be a priority.

 

What do you think should be key priorities for housing in the north over the next five years and the next 50 years?

Issues which will be a challenge for the north both in the short and long term include carbon reduction but it’s something we’ve got to tackle, and we must start now.  Part of this will be linked to retrofitting and ensuring we have the right resources and that we are implementing that effectively. We also need to continue listening to the customer and adapting and changing our services in line with their needs.

In addition, we should be constantly looking at how we can increase housing supply within the restraints of affordability and availability of skilled labour.  Things like the rising cost of materials will also have an impact.

We need to continually work to be smarter and more efficient in how we build and of course we have to listen to customers and adapt what we do to meet their needs.

Fuel poverty is a big issue now and I hope it won’t still be the case in 50 years’ time.

Whatever the timeframe, the focus should always be about housing supply.  Having sufficient and affordable homes for people in the right places and making sure that the homes we already have are decent and fit for purpose.

 

What do you feel the role of NHC is and what enables them to drive the changes that are needed?

I don’t think there is any other organisation in the north that represents the whole housing sector in the same way, spanning housing associations, local authorities, collaboration with the private sector and the voices of tenants. The Northern Housing Consortium are a strong voice for the north and their impact I feel can be broken into three key areas:

  • Influencing role – a voice for the north with government and key parties
  • Helping organisations become more efficient – through their procurement framework offering.
  • Events – Their events and roundtables are fantastic, bringing people together to discuss relevant issues as well as providing an opportunity to listen and learn from members and subsequently feed that back into the services and support they provide.

In essence, the culture of the organisation is all about having a can-do approach and it’s a way for people to come together, learn from each other and drive change.  It’s a body that can be a strong voice for housing across the north and which has a real influence with government.

 

And what gives you the most pride when you look back at your time in the housing sector?

Do you know what it’s a simple one. Essentially, it’s about seeing our work change communities for the better. Because what we do is about so much more than bricks and mortar!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making resident involvement centre stage

Yvonne Davies has over 38 years of experience working in housing and communities, including her role as Head of Housing and Economic Development at the Audit Commission and Manging Director at a Merseyside Housing Association.

For the last 13 years, she has led YD Consultants, which supports housing providers with resident involvement and empowerment, board and customer governance, board and resident scrutiny and equality, diversity and inclusion.

Since 2011 Yvonne has worked with NHC on their joint Resident Involvement Conference. This years’ event will be held online on 4th and 12th June, find out more on our events page.

 

Can you tell us a bit more about the partnership between the NHC and yourself on the Resident Involvement Conference?  

As Head of Housing and Economic Development for the Audit Commission (AC) I spoke at the NHC Resident Involvement Conference for five years up to 2011.  At the time it was an in-person event for two days at the Blackpool Hilton.

I then moved to set up my own consultancy (www.ydconsultants.co.uk) and worked with the NHC to ensure tenant involvement and good practice in involvement and empowerment remained current.

I always meant to get a ‘proper job’ when I left the AC, but my consultancy has been popular and gives me a great deal of freedom to make a difference where I can add most value.

Alongside the NHC, we have been running the Resident Involvement Conference together now for 13 years. I’m pleased to say it’s still very popular. Not long after this, and to meet growing demand, we started a winter Tenant Voice Conference with the appetite for information and best practice being high all year round.

This has been helpful in more recent years of tenant consultation on new standards and new laws, given the influx of ongoing change.

As difficult as the covid years were, this time also had its benefits too –we moved online, offerering the conference free of charge, which was of mutual benefit to NHC and YDC members.

 

What have been some of your highlights from previous years events?

I like to think that tenants and staff who have attended the conference have been able to take improvement ideas back to implement them, in a way that suits them.

We know by attending, asking questions, and making comments, they have contributed and influenced regulatory and government thinking.

Overall, there have been many highlights over the years – probably far too many to mention! In person it’s been the connections made and ideas exchanged in workshops at the conference.

Online – it’s people saying “yes to speaking” – being more readily available to give up an hour (as opposed to sacrificing a day plus travel time which is much more difficult), to share their ideas and to take questions. I learn something new each year and enjoy sharing that with my network.

The Regulator of Social Housing and Housing Ombudsman Service speaking directly to tenants in bitesize chunks has also enabled tenants to understand their rights and helps them to hold their landlord to account.

 

Can you tell us a bit more about this year’s event? What are you looking forward to most?  

We always have great speakers who are doing lots of innovative things! In particular, I like the “shoplifting” of ideas that are shared freely across landlords and tenants on their approaches to engagement.

I always try to throw in some challenges too from those who are at the top of their game, so no-one gets complacent!

I love the questioning and challenges from tenants to the speakers from the Government, Regulator of Social Housing and the Housing Ombudsman including their, “So what difference will it make for me?” style questions”.

This year we have contributions and latest thinking from the Regulator, Ombudsman and Government. We also have some challenges and opportunities offered by the Stop Social Housing Stigma tenants’ group who are developing a tenant pledge and toolkit to help landlords address local social stigma issues, and the same by HACT and Shelter to make the case for more social housing.

We have some great practitioners and tenants speakingfrom organsiations such as L&Q, MHS, Prima, Gateway HA. All will be sharing their challenges and helping us learn how they are overcoming them, through their actions.

 

How has resident engagement evolved and changed over the past 50 years?

There has certainly been much change over the years. The Audit Commission (AC) was big on involvement and tenant services, measuring both the service as it was, and the prospects for improvement for all housing services until 2011, when the AC closed down.

That meant no more public score reporting on tenant services, which was sometimes a poor motivator, but effective for some landlords.

In 2012 the Tenant Services Authority (TSA) stepped in as an arm of the Regulator, producing some good practice reports and holding landlords to account when they suspected “serious detriment” or life and limb safety issues.

The TSA also invented co-regulation, due to their limited resources and lack of proactive brief on tenant services. With the expectation that landords would deliver and annually agree this in their statements of accounts.

This led to Boards and Councils self-assessing their compliance and gave me plenty of work as a consultant – but for many, it was no longer an organisational risk and therefore not as prominent for decision makers. A few years later, the TSA had a name change to the Regulator of Social Housing, but again with a non active remit.

The cut in rents from Government at their next election was detrimental and saw many landlords lose money and focus on what got measured instead of continuing their involvement journey. The cost-of-living crisis and covid also hampered landlords’ ability to reinvest and connect in involvement.

Many excellent involvement staff left the sector. We lost skills and commitment to meet, listen to customers in evening meetings and weekends and to follow through on issues.

Covid set us back on engagement, as landlords looked after the most vulnerable and trained staff on new platforms as we moved on-line with engagement. We lost, but also gained some new tenants to engagement. Thankfully however it has settled now, with most good landlords offering a hybrid approach.

The tragic fire at Grenfell where 71 people lost their lives was a key to change. This must lead to a lasting positive impact on safety and tenancy services, with a greater focus on hearing and acting for social housing residents.

The post government roadshows which followed the fire in 2017, were run by government and attended by Ministers. Here, they heard tenants talk of the social housing stigma, a lack of respect and concerns around multiple repair issues.

All of these were picked up in a 2018 Government Green Paper, which became a White paper in 2020 and law (the Social Housing Regulation Act) in July 2023 – effective after consultation, for Regulation by the RSH from April 2024.

Most importantly, new requirements on inspection and new consumers standards on tenant accountability and tenant influence mean that more staff are being employed again, in involvement.

As a sector, we are turning the ship back around to where it was and hopefully will remain and get even better. Involvement is starting to focus on measurable outcomes for tenants and landlords, which is where it should be.

 

And what do you hope to see over the next 50 years?

I will not be here in 50 years! But I am old enough now to see the same issues going around again and again. We have started inspecting again!

The Government still has a few challenges for landlords to add, like new regulations and inspection, requirements on safety repairs/damp and mould, Decent Homes Two and the Right to Information for tenants.

I am hopeful the Competency and Conduct Standard aimed at staff, where qualifications have been the key discussion, will move to its purpose which was based on customer care, addressing stigma, respect for tenants and how tenants should be listened to, heard and their views acted upon.

I am hopeful the inspection process will lead to landlords wanting to be at the top of their game in engagement and empowerment.

Very few things in the standards have changed – but the emphasis on inspection has sharpened the urgency of this and reignited excitement in involved residents that their views may be acted upon and more resources from landlords.

I feel we can now get away from titles like “Tenant” Board Members and instead start to see the resident contribution as a Board Member on customer services. I would like to think we will invest to support the skills of new and existing involved customers to maximise their contribution.

I’m hoping it is now clear that tokenistic involvement in Boards and Committees is not enough. We must reach out to all tenants with engagement and take note of their “so what difference will it make” questions.

It would also be good for landlords to say – we have no “hard to reach” groups – that way we know we have gone out of our way to gather every tenant’s view.

Generation Z is more socially minded, but they can’t afford to buy a home. It would be valuable to gather some of those younger views into engagement too, even if they are not the tenant yet.

What is great now is our more hybrid approach to involvement – online and in person surveys and zoom meetings, as well as face to face. I am sure and I hope this flexible approach will continue!  Residents use offices less too, so we are seeing more front line staff making changes and coming out to estates. I am not sure we have yet grasped, or use the intelligence this could bring back to our businesses to shape services, but this is improving.

Involvement is more dynamic now but what we haven’t yet maximised is evening meetings, which can be more inclusive of views of working households and holds the key to wider engagement, especially when run as hybrid and on a task and finish basis.

We are seeing more delegated powers to residents to approve policies and process change, where there are no resource implications outside the director’s own budget which is positive.

We are also beginning to see more landlords combining survey and involvement data.

More co-creation and co-design in focus groups of tenants, landlord staff and governors is growing too and is great to see.

At the end of the day our objective is clear. We all want the same thing – which is happy customers and great services.

In essence we don’t need anything complex or expensive, what we should be thinking about is:

  • A culture shift towards residents, where involvement outcomes are as ‘sexy’ and ‘newsworthy’, as the latest housing development.

 

  • The TSM’s and resident voices focussing Regulation on what matters most to tenants and keeping it real, (maybe more of a qualitative than measurement focus). A tenant said to me recently at a national conference– “I reported my dissatisfaction with the repairs service for two years and it got me nowhere including returning a number of surveys – will the TSM’s make a difference to that? or will I still need to find the Director’s phone number to fix my problem?”. We all know the TSM’s wont fix individual issues, however common.
  • Celebrate the contribution of great social landlords, and their involved tenants as they focus on doing the right thing and take responsibility to see things through to delivery, personally. That is what staff awards and rewards should be about.
  • Smile and welcome resident volunteer views – (they are a gift). At the end of the day, we should remember that we get paid – residents don’t. Residents give their time to improve services to see nothing happen and there is an expectation for us to do something with their contribution. We must listen but we must act too!

Happy 50th Birthday NHC, congratulations and on all you do – here’s to the next 50 and some fabulous tenant empowerment too!

Advocating for a sustainable future which benefits everyone

Steve Mackenzie

Steve Mackenzie is Homes and Environment Champion on Yorkshire Housing’s  Customer Voice and Review Committee. He’s a member of the Social Housing Tenant’s Climate Jury, the NHC’s award winning citizen’s jury which looked at how tenants and landlords could work together to tackle climate change.

He was also part of the tenant advisory group for the Heartwarming Homes  campaign and took a role in contributing to The Centre for Social Justice’s ‘Better Insulate Than Never’ report in 2022.

Steve has also spoken at a host of conference and events about the importance of working with communities towards a more sustainable future.

 

What led to you developing an interest in climate change?

Climate change affects every person and yet everything we do affects climate change. The poignancy of this fact very much drives my interest in the topic.

Climate change is happening, and it’s because of this, I’ve held a strong interest in its impact, most notably across the housing sector.

As the industry moves at pace, and the demands for us to decarbonise increase there are many unresolved challenges for the sector. Funding may well have been provided but so have challenging timeframes and a lack of knowledge, skills, and guidance to deliver what is required in housing, at the pace it is required at.

Since 2011, 2.3 million homes have been decarbonised out of approximately 28.4 million properties. That leaves the equivalent of one million homes on average a year or one every two minutes to be decarbonised, but the reality is that we are a long way from achieving those targets!

Better communication is required, as are green skills and education, so we have the resources and knowledge to meet demand. Listening to and championing the voices of tenants will be vital, to understand where the barriers may be for retrofit projects and debunking the myths that might thwart progress or take up. Aswell as working with landlords to share this knowledge.

Being part of a number of housing committees and juries including the Northern Housing Consortium’s Social Housing Tenants Climate Jury, has been invaluable in  learning where the gaps are in delivering these ambitious goals. And most importantly making key recommendations that will help drive the housing sector forward when it comes to decarbonisation and net zero.

  

What do you think are the most important recommendations to come out of the Social Housing Tenant’s Climate jury and Heartwarming Homes?

 The projects have led to many positive recommendations for the housing sector, most notably around the importance of communication, collaboration, and dispelling myths.

 

Social Housing Tenant’s Climate Jury – recommendations

 Fundamentally, communication and collaboration is key. For example, if you don’t effectively communicate and understand the needs of your tenants, dispelling myths about retrofit and similar areas, then barriers to change can occur.  That and negative media coverage on retrofit over recent years hasn’t been helpful. This is despite many positive project examples. I recall one in Yorkshire for example when completed last year successfully took a home from an EPC rating of F to B! It’s important that we share these stories!

Include your tenants – Another key recommendation is around being inclusive and collaborating with tenants. Not just about retrofit but about the environment. Asking them.. What do they need? More green space? Allotments? Benches to socialise? Because when people feel involved and consulted engagement increases.

 

Regional climate juries in different geographical areas

There have been many positive recommendations from the SHTCJ that will be beneficial across the sector. However, I feel there would be further value in having juries and forums in different areas across the country. The benefit being they will be able to better tailor and respond to the specific needs of their geographical areas.

For example, radon gas has become a key issue in coastal areas such as Cornwall and Devon. Aswell as concerns around coastal erosion and how this is impacting on the corrosion of buildings is something that may be more specific to the area.

 

Heartwarming Homes – recommendations

 Key recommendations from the Heartwarming Homes campaign would again be around the importance of consistency in communications. Using the right language and helping landlords with that so that communications are tailored to different customer groups, which will help their impact.  Fundamentally, too it’s about not telling people what to do, but why things need to be done and the benefits short and long term from doing so to increase engagement.

It’s also about being honest first and foremost with tenants and being upfront about the challenges and outcomes that come with retrofit and other such work. Explaining the how, what, and why. Being more personal in approach to encourage buy in and engagement from communities and tenants.

Sharing positive tenant case studies and good news stories on how they are benefiting from changes whether that be from their new heat pump, or the cost savings they are receiving will also be beneficial.

 

What has been your experience of working with the Northern Housing Consortium on these projects?

 It’s been an incredibly positive experience working with the Northern Housing Consortium who have led on some influential projects. The NHC have really helped to unify the sector too, bringing different individuals and groups together from suppliers, members, councils and Government.

As a sector that is ever changing, such projects also demonstrate NHC’s commitment to ongoing learning about the housing industry, and their role in using that learning to guide and inform others.

The NHC are great at keeping everyone informed and up to date with their many webinars and conferences which always have a host of informative speakers. These events are always well attended but it would be great to also encourage more tenants to events too, to learn from and share information with. Not just NHC events but events in the sector more generally.

 

What do you think should be the key priorities of social housing providers as they work towards achieving Net Zero?  

 Communication, campaigns and continuity

 It comes back to some of the points made earlier, but primarily I feel we need to get more tenants involved in the process. This is especially important if the goal is to retrofit 25,000 properties a week in line with Government targets! So, when a landlord has 30 properties but say may only be retrofitting 10, in my opinion they need to be involving the whole development so they can see what work is being done, why it’s being done and the benefits too. They may have questions which is great and all part of feeding the learning curve. Essentially, it’s about collaborating with local communities outside the scope of what a housing association usually does.

I also believe we should look at streamlining the supply chain and labour market ensuring work is given to local experienced companies and well qualified workers. Developing local apprenticeships and knowledge too will also be vital so that we can safeguard the green skills of the future! And in turn boost those regional economies.

I’d also like to see more regional bodies established that are non-political and made up of local businesses, education providers, suppliers, planners, and residents who can have the autonomy to make decisions for their local areas. Ensuring the consistency, continuity, and longevity needed to have true gravitas and bring social value to each area.

 

Finally, I also feel a positive public media campaign could be beneficial. Collaborating with the whole sector including local authorities, housing associations, manufacturers, suppliers, and installers to develop a poignant initiative with strong creative and messaging that will increase awareness about net zero requirements, the benefits, and the challenges of the sector too.

Serving the community since the 70s

Ian Vickers, neighbourhood team leader at Believe Housing, has worked in housing since 1978. He joined Easington District Council as a painter and decorator, before becoming a neighbourhood officer a few years later.

He came to speak to NHC colleagues at our staff quarterly meeting as part of 50 Stories Live.

Tell us about when you joined the council?

I applied to be an apprentice painter and decorator and was interviewed by 70 people in the council chamber. A lot of councillors were there, and there was the personnel department too! It was intimidating for a young 16-year-old lad, I’d brought in schoolwork to show! But I managed to hold my nerve by focusing on the one person I knew in the audience.

It was so different back then. They asked me if I was Catholic.  If you were, a percentage of your wage was paid to the church. To do the job it was compulsory to be in the union. Women were asked if they had a boyfriend and if they planned to have children, this would definitely no longer be part of an interview.

What prompted you to move from being a painter and decorator to working in neighbourhood management?

It was a case of redundancy, and I was offered a position in the neighbourhood team. I did a week of shadowing and then I was straight out into the community!

What have been the biggest changes since you started?

The number of homes we manage has fluctuated with Right to Buy and pit closures changing the face of communities. I’ve overseen a lot of houses being pulled down, due to structural faults, or there simply not being the demand. When the mines closed a lot of younger people moved away from the pit villages to find work. This meant older people tended to stay put and didn’t want bungalows anymore.

Things have now gone full circle as with the bedroom tax there’s now more demand for smaller properties. We’re also redeveloping and building new homes in many of the areas we were demolishing homes in a few years ago.

Ian (second left) doing consultation in Murton on home improvements in the early 90s.

The introduction of IT has changed how we work and the pace. When I started, we relied on paper memos. Now everything has been digitalised and can be done so much quicker. We no longer have to wait for monthly committees to meet to decide on allocations.

What’s got better over time?

Housing providers listen to customers a lot more now, and often customers’ needs turn out to be different to what we expected.  Customer communication has improved, and we’ve got better at listening.  It’s great to see customers as part of the board, making a real difference.